[Editor’s note: This post is part of a series of interviews with Directors of Latin American think tanks addressing different aspects of think tanks’ management and leadership. You can access the series at the On Think Tanks interviews Topic page. This interview has been originally published in Spanish at VIPPAL.]
Leandro Echt: How did you become director of GRADE?
Martín Benavides: I started at GRADE as an intern in ’93. I became a research assistant and then a researcher. Then I went to graduate school abroad, and returned 6 years later, working first as a research associate and then as a principal researcher. From there, I became a member of the Assembly of Associates, which is the body that elects the director. In 2007 I was chosen as director.
LE: What were the main challenges you faced in becoming director?
MB: The first main challenge was obtaining our own space. The first part of my term was closely linked to the process of buying, selling, building, etc.
The second challenge was achieving greater efficiency in our administrative processes. GRADE has always been a very personalized institution, in the sense that our administration was very close to the researchers, which worked well when we were 20 people. In 2008 we were already 80 (today we are 100), so we had to modify some of our administrative logistics, but in a context in which we didn’t have the resources to increase the size of the administration [Editor´s Note: in the following video from 2011, Martín Benavides explains how GRADE addressed the challenge of modernizing their administration. Available in Spanish].
The third major challenge was programming, which fortunately was met with the support of the Think Tank Initiative (TTI). This last challenge resulted in organizational changes, for example, in order to establish a field of communication, which had never been one of GRADE’s concerns [Editor’s Note: in the following video from 2011, Martín Benavides explains how GRADE addressed the challenge of achieving greater impact, visibility, and communication. Available in Spanish]. Within these programming challenges, there was also an emphasis on efforts to scale up research: GRADE should grow in order to attract more projects, and in order to do this we had to focus on a generational transition [Editor’s Note: in the following video from 2011, Martín Benavides explains how GRADE addressed the challenge of generational changes. Available in Spanish].
A fourth challenge is related to GRADE`s increasing internationalization. Before, most of our researchers participated in numerous international academic networks on an individual level. Since I began my administration, GRADE as an institution has begun to connect with and try to have a leading role in various networks. This demands that I travel a lot, above all, to generate institutional resources.
The final challenge has been trying to introduce some changes in GRADE’s business model without losing sight of our focus, which is research. We have introduced activities for skill development and project implementation, which should be built upon by the next administration. Addressing this last challenge has been part of the concern about GRADE’s sustainability.
LE: How did you manage to scale up research?
MB: The Think Tank Initiative provided us with tools to generate new incentives, but at the same time we had to modify our internal practices. For example, before only principal investigators could manage projects in GRADE. Not even research associates, a position with some seniority, had this option, which often led them to choose other work options over GRADE. In 2009, with the objective of scaling up research, we modified this policy, and allowed them to have more autonomy in managing projects. This caused new researchers to join. Furthermore, we created an incentive system within the institution: for publications, for certain types of projects, for larger projects in terms of budget.
LE: In order to address some of these challenges that you faced during your time as director, did you look to any organizations for support or inspiration?
MB: For designing courses, the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV) has been a model. FGV is an interesting example of an institution approaches different things. But for other things, I believe that GRADE has made its own way as an original organizational model in the region. We were flying solo during a time when there still wasn’t a set of institutions that are now strong in Peru and in the region. We learned a lot from this experience, always being thoughtful and reflective about our work. An example of this reflective work was the strategic consulting we did in 2000 on strategic institutional issues. This project was completed in 2010, when we invited the consultant to evaluate our progress and suggest new paths. Many of the actions I mentioned in previous answers were the result of the assessments and suggestions of this consultant.
LE: What sort of balance do you think GRADE has contributed to public policies in Peru during your administration?
MB: One of the main goals that I set at the beginning of my term was to make clear to my colleagues that at the heart of GRADE is influencing public policies. While this has always been a part of our mission, it was not always given the attention it deserved. For example, now we publish much more than we used to. And, along the same lines, I also sought to make explicit the fact that our work should not be over with the publishing of a study, but with a dialogue about that publication. So, I have been concerned with boosting our approach to the public sector to achieve collaborative work.
LE: And anything that remains unfinished?
MB: On the one hand, I would have liked to work more on raising awareness of GRADE’s mission. There are things we do that nobody knows about. We could have held more outreach events, for example. On the other hand, I think that we haven’t advanced much in creating a more territorial approach to public policies. While we do a lot of work at the national level, we have not sufficiently captured the regional dynamics of public policy. But we’re working on it.
LE: What do you think is the proper balance between an academic background and management skills that the director of a think tank should have?
MB: I think that this varies greatly among institutions. To lead GRADE, one needs a good deal of management skills. Among other things, we don’t have program directors, and our projects are very heterogeneous. But GRADE’s organizational model wouldn’t work with an executive director who did not have a strong academic background. Because GRADE`s image, from the outside, is that of an academic institution. So, for internal management, one needs management skills, but for the institution’s public presence, it is important that the director have an academic background.
LE: Do you think that there is a niche training most appropriate for someone who aspires to be director of a think tank?
MB: The question could be: is there a market of think tanks that could grow more than it has already grown? In Peru, for example, even with all the economic growth we have experienced, what have emerged more are consultants. Because having an institution like GRADE, CIPPEC or other think tanks represents a huge investment cost. And this is happening in a context in which people increasingly want to work from home, and such a large organizational structure becomes less attractive. I truly believe that we are reaching a breaking point: I don’t think that more think tanks will emerge in Peru. In this sense, I think that the challenge is not training executive directors, but designing a training program for research management: from finding resources to its management, diversification, etc.
LE: In the context you mention, what added value would think tanks bring in terms of consulting?
MB: Much of GRADE’s impact has to do with accumulating knowledge in specific areas. This means investing institutionally in people to develop a workspace. This is rarely done in consulting, which is often tailored to the project being demanded of them. We try to build research spaces, focused on projects, but with another type of impact. And that’s what provides us with an important connection with the public sector.
LE: Peru has often been considered a favorable environment for evidence generated from research to inform the design and implementation of public policies. What do you make of this?
MB: I think it’s mainly due to two issues. First, in Peru we have solid institutions. Now we are called think tanks, but we have always been recognized as centers of policy research. The Institute for Peruvian Studies (IEP) is more than 50 years old, GRADE is 35 years old. For decades we have continually contributed to thinking about the country, to maintaining a logical prestige, to not becoming absorbed, as an institution, in political cycles (beyond the fact that certain researchers have moved and can move up the ranks of the public sector). Secondly, it’s due to changes in the State’s own logic, which have introduced more technocratic, less ideological elements in public management. In Peru there are no political parties; leaders come to power without a technical framework. The technical market is relatively small, and it`s easier for one of these to become public policy in a context in which the weight of ideologies has diminished.
LE: GRADE conducts numerous evaluations of plans and public programs. What space do you imagine for think tanks in regard to this evaluation of policies?
MB: This challenge is huge, but so are the opportunities. Through GRADE we have strongly institutionalized evaluation, not only in Peru, but also on a regional level. There are many people here working on policy evaluation, and some of us have been involved in the design of evaluation mechanisms for the State: for example, the Ministry of Development and Social Inclusion (MIDIS) had a researcher from GRADE as a main consultant for evaluation. Moreover, we are also coordinating an IDRC program for the evaluation of policies related to poverty, we have coordinated with the Online Network on Inequality and Poverty (NIP). We are also teaching a course with CEDLAS on impact evaluation. The main challenge for think tanks is competition with outside institutions, not from the region but from the US, who are coming very strongly into our market. We must be prepared to compete. The other challenge is an interdisciplinary approach to evaluation: not only working with randomized controlled trials, but also exploring the qualitative aspect, systematic evaluation reviews, etc.
LE: Why are you leaving the executive direction of GRADE?
MB: GRADE is an institution that strongly supports change, although this is not an explicit rule of ours. Our executive directors serve, on average, for more than 4 years. I am beginning my sixth year. And I don’t think that this is in tune with the fact that we are a changing institution, where new people can develop a career within the organization, etc. I would like this dynamic to remain, since it is GRADE’s hallmark.
LE: How have you designed the process of selecting a new director?
MB: In GRADE we already have a set of established rules: our director always has to come from the Assembly. We have already selected a list of candidates for the Executive Committee [Editor’s Note: composed of an Executive Director, Research Director, and Spokesperson], since we must not only reselect a director, but also the Committee. We have tried to maintain a gender balance, balance between disciplines, and ideological balance. Part of my role as director has been working on and developing a broad and legitimate list of candidates in that sense. However, in order to facilitate the transition, one of the people who is currently part of the Executive Committee will remain in the institution for a time.
LE: Since you mention TTI, what do you make of your experience leading this initiative for GRADE?
MB: It has been very important. The resources provided by TTI were more relevant before than now: when TTI began, their support fund made up 25% of our budget, and now it’s 9%. This means that we have grown with TTI, which was one of the main objectives. In this sense, we have not done things that we knew would not be sustainable. We have made some organizational changes that have resulted in benefits for the institution. This has also allowed us to update our research agenda, integrating new human resources. Personally, it has helped me to enter the global game: I have traveled extensively and participated in many international initiatives, always ensuring that GRADE has a leadership role (for example, GRADE is part of the network of coordinating groups for the Latin American Initiative for Public Policy Research – ILAIPP), driving the international expansion of GRADE as an institution.
LE: What are the main challenges for the sustainability of think tanks in the region?
MB: You don’t see international cooperation in our region anymore, nor in some of the countries within it, like you did before. For example, Peru is seen as a middle-income country, but we still face enormous challenges. There is the challenge, then, of raising awareness of the persistent exclusion in this and other middle-income countries. On the other hand, I think that we are moving towards a model in which the State is utilizing more resources that have resulted from economic growth, although consulting still predominates over investment in institutions that produce knowledge through research. But I think that you have to prepare yourself well for this set of demands from the State, some of which may require you to develop new expertise. Moreover, there is a great challenge to provide legitimacy to the effort to generate knowledge. Peru and other countries need to dedicate time to thinking, and this is a challenge that our centers should take on: thinking beyond policies, beyond the short term, thinking in the long-term. This challenge is presented parallel to the challenge of generating different resources so that our institutions will be more sustainable over time.
LE: After spending so long in a think tank, have you been able to conceptualize a definition of what a think tank is?
MB: First, the heart of an institution like GRADE is the production of knowledge. Second, that knowledge must be relevant to the country. So I would say that a center like ours is a place where knowledge is produced that is relevant to the country. That means developing a set of mechanisms that ensure that the knowledge we produce is truly valid, centered in appropriate research processes. And, furthermore, this means institutionalizing links with the public sector.
(Editor`s note: Below is a list of three videos presented in the interview, in which Martín Benavides addresses how GRADE resolved institutional challenges in the following areas. Videos are only available in Spanish: